Saturday, March 7, 2015

"Elemeno Pea" - A Reversal of Relationships with Comedy and Drama

L to R: Ariel Woodiwiss (Devon), Kimberly Parker Green (Michaela) and Robin Abramsin (Simone) in a scene from City Theatre's "Elemenopea"
Going into City Theatre’s production of "Elemeno Pea," I knew what to expect from the plot. I’d seen the debut production of playwright Molly Smith Metzler’s comic social satire with poignant moments of drama at the Humana Festival in Louisville a few years back.
Not particularly impressed with the Louisville staging (I’d have given it a C grade), I was drawn to the Pittsburgh production by curiosity. I wanted to see how a new cast, crew and director would put their imprint on the work.
Ten minutes into the play, I was less than impressed and ready to get out my scorecard  and pen to record another C grade. Then something happened that completely reversed my incipient impression of yet another exercise in humdrumdity. I inexplicably became completely absorbed by what was happening on stage.
The locale of this theatrical adventure is the almost Edenic world  of  Martha’s Vineyard, New England’s largest island that lies off the Massachusetts coast. The setting is one of the summer homes of the super affluent, make that guest home, that comes with an infinity pool, a hot tub, a view of the ocean, a private beach and amenities that cross over into extravagant.
Two sisters meet at the beach house the for a cozy weekend get together to renew sibling ties. Simone (Robin Abramson) lives in the house as an extravagantly paid personal secretary and general lackey to trophy wife, Michaela (Kimberly Parker Greene). Her sister, Devon (Ariel Woodiwiss), flew in from Buffalo, where she lives in the basement of her mother’s house on the rebound following a disastrous West Coast romance.
Almost immediately, the two women begin sparring verbally, sparking a series of laughs in the audience that came with such frequency and audibility that I missed snippets of dialogue. So much for their planned weekend of sibling bond-building.
Things get even more interesting when Michaela arrives, distraught and disconsolate, after being peremptorily abandoned by her husband, seemingly for no apparent reason. Despite her plight, Michaela maintains a haughty attitude tempered by a need to appear as a down-to-earth, one of the girls, whose only difference is that she has loads of money.
Drawn like a moth to the flame and blinded by the light glinting off Micaela’s golden lifestyle, Simone doesn’t seem to realize how obsequious she’s become when badgered by her employer’s demands. It’s an attitude, however, that Devon will have none of, and she shows off her grit and moxie by going head-to-head with her pampered, but beleaguered hostess.
Events take an even more colorful turn when Jos-B, played with  exemplary  craft by Tony Chiroldes, the household handyman and jack-of-all-trades, shows up with his unique brand of humor, adding a blue collar element to the mix. Counter point to him, is the superficial, self-centered, Ethan (Anthony Comis), a wealthy, youthful playboy who’s veered out of his social class by taking a liking to Simone.
Those familiar with Woody Allen’s film, "Blue Jasmine," are aware of the meaty escapades that comes with the heroine’s fall from grace. The same scenario follows suit in "Elemeno Pea," when Michaela "steps over the line," an event that sends her on a downward spiral with her husband and the lifestyle he offers. One of the highlights of the production is the skill with Green transitions from an unlikeable plastic princess to a woman deserving of sympathy.
It’s interesting to watch how many relationships go into reverse during the play’s 90-minute run time. The two sisters are on again, off again, then on again, Michaela and her husband go from married couple of nearly five years to bitter enemies. Jos-B’s initial superficial subservience to Michaela takes a 180-degree turn after her marriage miscarries. Even loyal Simone takes on a new attitude to her employer by the end of the play. Only her relationship to Ethan seems to have survived the thunderstorm of emotional upheavals.
If you’re wondering about the play’s title, it’s a reference to one of the sister’s grade school experiences while learning the alphabet.  Thinking that elemeno pea was a single letter of the alphabet seems to have been enough to keep her from passing the first grade and earned her the derision of her classmates. The word followed her into adulthood to become a code of understanding shared by the two sisters.
Director Tracy Brigden moves the plot along at a fast clip that takes the audience on an exhilarating ride that’s full of laughs with side trips into more sober  landscapes. Set designer Tony Ferrieri captures the posh feel of a Martha’s Vineyard seaside summer house that’s beyond  the economic reach of most American pocketbooks.
If I were to grade City Theatre’s production, I’d give it a B. The acting, directing, costuming and technical elements are wonderful but I’m still less than satisfied with Metzler’s script. Though well-crafted and entertaining, it sometimes leaves its realistic base and wanders into zany burlesque at the expense of verismo.
The morning after my theater outing, I did a bit of soul-searching and asked myself why the difference in my perceptions of the play at the Humana and at City Theatre. For one, the theater at the Humana was much larger. At the Humana, I was also on a play weekend in which I saw close to eight plays in the course of three days, and burn out and attention fatigue may have played a role. Or it could have been something as simple as seeing the play for the second time gave me insights I may have missed the first time around.
Whatever the case, my opinion of the play has improved following an entertaining outing at City Theatre.
"Elemeno Pea" is at the City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street on Pittsburgh’s South Side through March 22. Phone 412-431-2489.

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